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22 March 2013

Terence Handley MacMath continues her Lent series

WHAT impressed me, as I listened to a group of 35 young-to-middle-aged participants in a secular mindfulness-based stress-reduction course, was the spiritual growth that they experienced and articulated.

We met over a term to practise meditation in different postures and for different lengths of time, which we committed ourselves to using twice a day between the weekly sessions. When we came together, we shared the insights that these brought us - as well as the boredom, frustration, and sheer panic at the idea of finding time for this in our demanding lives.

We discovered what we discover if we do nothing but a simple task such as examining and eating one raisin for four minutes, or what it is like to pay attention to our physical sensations for 40 minutes.

These exercises had no explicit religious content - or, one might say, they had a fundamental religious content, because they affirmed that the present moment and our awareness of it was worthy of our full attention. They also encouraged unknowing, so that the attention we paid to ourselves was neither narcissistic nor judgemental, but simply attentive and committed. It was, for those who wished to see it in such a way, an effort to see ourselves as God sees us, with an agenda that was basically friendly. For many in the group, it became a revelation of what I would call a spiritual way of life. A few with past religious affiliations spoke of wanting to revisit this aspect of their lives.

It may not have been clear to them why attending to reality by focusing their attention on their toes or their breathing should change their characters, but most of them said that they had changed decisively by the end of the course. They spoke of being nicer, kinder, more patient, having more gentleness, and more self-control. Two spoke of being surprised by joy, in what some would call a unitive experience.

I had participated in the group as a priest committed to contemplative prayer and a Benedictine rule of life. I had hoped to find a method by which I could free my prayer and my actions and reactions from habitual preoccupations - to have at least a sporting chance of making my relationship with God, time, and the created world a loving one.

With mindfulness, I can find calm when I might fall into frustration or fright. Or, at the very least, I have a clearer awareness that I am falling. This is how I interpret St Benedict's conversio - the daily, hourly need for all of us to choose God's reality actively rather than to be "scattered in the imagination of our hearts" - which is the worst punishment that Mary can imagine for God's enemies, and the condition from which I attempt, most of the time, to do my priestly work.

The Revd Terence Handley MacMath is an NHS chaplain, and a teacher of mindfulness in Christian and secular settings.

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